Alastair Stewart: Anti-feminism and anti-woke backlashes is being disguised as legitimate criticism

What to do after watching the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series? Read the responses to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial.

And why not? The Fairfax, Virginia courtroom may as well be a galaxy far, far away for those in Scotland.

On paper, the Depp-Heard case was a defamation trial. The Pirates of the Caribbean star was suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for $50m over a 2018 article claiming she suffered domestic abuse. Heard counter-sued for $100m.

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We might ask why there was such intense media scrutiny on a civil trial between two wealthy actors. Why do ordinary people become a baying crowd of uninformed experts soaked in innuendo, bias and misogyny?

Actor Amber Heard testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit CourthouseActor Amber Heard testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse
Actor Amber Heard testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse

We are so enamoured and defined by celebrities that we will convince ourselves of anything to defend or excuse them. Televised and live-streamed coverage of the trial hit billions of views online. And social media turned us all into mudslingers and armchair experts.

Heard said she had suffered from numerous physical assaults from Depp. But Heard's accusations were mocked online, and she was accused of fabricating her testimony and deploying fake tears. "She's an actress,' said one Twitter comment, "this is her only good performance."

I have followed with macabre curiosity the rabbit hole depths some commenters went to throughout the trial. The remarks were brief, cruel, and blunt on Twitter in their dismissal of Heard (or their slavish praise of "our boy" Depp). Facebook users generally made some longer-form attempt to make heads or tales of the litigation involved (but even that descends into celebrations of "the Truth & Honesty" versus "Lies Amber Heard").

Memes were rampant. Many posts performed mocking re-enactments of Heard's testimony, including lip-synced moments of the trial using clips from Depp and Heard's movies. The audio of Heard crying became a TikTok trend, and "gotcha" clips with sarcastic questions like "forget your past testimony??" were rife.

Instagram was the worst to monitor. Scrolling through a sea of videos that made comedic vignettes out of "trial moments" was just gaudy and excessive. Zoomed in moments on wry smiles, Depp sketching doodles, Heard "posing" for a photo with a teary tissue, and "takedown" legal moments made comedy out of a very sombre civil suit.

Depp and Heard never stopped being characters on screen for our entertainment. We exchanged a cinema for courtroom drama and wished for as much sordid deprivation, misery, strikeout moments, oddball witnesses, hysteria and injustice as we could get.

If the six weeks of this constant barrage were not toxic enough, the coverage of the verdict proved the trick.

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Jurors awarded Depp - who denied abusing Heard - $15m in compensatory and punitive damages. Screams and chants of "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny" erupted outside the court. Live headlines from 37 sources of news I was monitoring ran with some version of "Depp wins", "Depp innocent", "Depp comes out on top", and "Depp celebrates."

Only six noted in their headline that Heard won one of three counter-claims and was awarded $2m in compensatory damages. Jurors also found that Depp had defamed Heard when his lawyer stated to the Daily Mail in 2020, calling her abuse allegations a hoax, but this was the second fiddle in the immediate aftermath.

Why is there so much hate for Heard? #MeToo has cemented itself so much in our social hierarchy that it is now attracting intense anti-establishmentarianism. Replace Heard with any other actress in the shadow of a "great" and "popular" man with Depp's universalism, and the iconoclasm would be the same.

A similar reactionaryism is against Moses Ingram from the Obi-Wan Kenobi series. Ingram shared screenshots of the racist direct messages, such as her "days are numbered" and another calling her a "diversity hire".

Some "fans" of Star Wars refuse to accept this, claiming it is a "marketing ploy", with another saying that Ingram has made the whole thing up. Others take pains to point out that damning criticism of the actress's abilities as a villain, the character she plays, and racism are wrongly bundled into one pot. "Fans have a right to comment," said another.

It is gleeful, knee-jerk reactionaryism that victim blames (Heard "is just as bad as Depp", "Moses is a bad actress, it doesn't matter if she is black."). Virulent anti-feminism and anti-woke backlashes are being disguised as legitimate criticism.

Worse, having looked and read closely on social media, I sincerely do not believe people who engage in this are aware of their bile. Even a cursory look online can see the depressing cognitive dissonance that overcomes anyone supporting Depp or justifying racism against a black actress. "It's a conspiracy." "Of course, she's lying. Have you not seen what she's wearing today?" and "Maybe Ingram is making this up because she's a bad actress?"

Hating the new "woke" order is at the crux of this. It is attitudinal, not political, and often unconscious. "Fans" genuinely believe they are making fair points, so it is often unchallenged. The same was true of Jodie's Whittaker stint as Doctor Who - misogyny was disguised as "oh, but a man was better in the TARDIS, she's just a bit too emotional."

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Online rubbernecking and unlimited social media space have made this a frightening and dangerous mentality at the heart of our society. The best we can hope to do is not just call it out but explicitly say it is a well-oiled, hostile, unconscious bias against progressivism and equality.

"Fame" is a term that's been around since the days of the Romans. We forget that the Latin word fama could mean rumour or great deeds. It will be for readers to judge which of those meanings our celebrity-obsessed culture is rooted in today.